Since racial tensions in Crown Heights peaked almost twenty years ago, a renaissance has transformed the neighborhood. The area is an ethnic and social medley, where young students live in the same building as Haitians who immigrated long ago, and African-American and Jewish families own homes across the street from one another. "I think that more and more, people are just sick of fighting,” a real estate broker told the New York Times. “We’re at war on so many fronts that to have a war on a neighborhood home front is just too much, so there’s a great calm and a great sense of peace.”
There is plenty to do in this hood, which stretches from Washington Avenue to Utica Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Empire Boulevard with scenic Eastern Parkway bisecting it. Start the day off with breakfast at Tom's Diner on Washington Avenue on the south side. Family owned and operated, Tom's has served up some of the best — and cheapest — food for 70 years. If there's a line, don't let it scare you away; they pass around treats like coffee, cookies, and sausages while you wait. The extensive menu may seem daunting, but nothing will disappoint. The crab cakes are delightful, with hardly any filling, just lumps of sweet crab meat. Plus, they're served with two eggs and your choice of toast, home fries or french fries, all for only $8! The specialty pancakes are so good they should come with a warning. After asking everyone around us, including three different waiters, which kind we should order, we finally settled on the pumpkin walnut and nearly died from deliciousness. Wash it all down with a traditional egg cream.
After you're sufficiently stuffed, waddle across Eastern Parkway to two of the borough's biggest cultural institutions: the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Museum. If the weather is nice, opt for the gardens, 52 acres of themed gardens and conservatory filled with more than 10,000 types of plants. Our favorite area is the peaceful Japanese Hill and Pond Garden. It's one of the oldest and most visited Japanese-inspired gardens outside Japan. Currently, the Botanic Garden is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a special exhibit of memorabilia on display in the Steinhardt Conservatory Gallery.
If its raining outside, or unbearably hot, visit the Brooklyn Museum, the second largest museum in New York City. For those with little ones, Crown Heights has the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the Jewish Children's Museum, just a few more blocks away.
From the museum, take a walk or bike north along the promenades on Eastern Parkway, the world's first parkway. Its designers coined the word "parkway" because they wanted the road to be specifically for pleasure-riding and driving. Today's drivers are more likely to zoom down the road like race car drivers rather than leisurely enjoy the scenery, but the trees lining the walkways buffer you from traffic, providing a lovely place to walk or ride through the neighborhood. Every Labor Day, Eastern Parkway hosts the West Indian Day Parade, showcasing dance and pageantry that runs colorfully down the parkway. For an introduction, watch this video.
When you hit Nostrand Avenue, turn left or right to grab some lunch at a location of Gloria's, one of the area's many West Indian restaurants. In 1994, 70 percent of Crown Heights residents were from the Caribbean, and the neighborhood still has the most varied population Caribbean immigrants outside of the West Indies. Gloria's has a wide variety of roti, a flatbread (kind of like a thinner piece of naan) wrapped around a meat and potato curry. We're partial to the goat, but for the vegetarians out there, the pumpkin is equally delicious. The doubles, a sandwich made from two small fried flatbreads filled with curried chickpeas and topped with a spicy chutney, is extremely flavorful. And it's only $2! It's take-out only, so grab your food and find a bench on Eastern Parkway. Check out some of the local West Indian markets for specialty spices and imported treats like Ting, a delightful sparkling grapefruit beverage.
If you're in the neighborhood on a Sunday, you should go to Bunch O Bagels (closed Saturdays) for lunch. This kosher cafe makes their New York style kettle boiled bagels fresh every day. They're superb with just cream cheese, but the also offer a wide variety of bagel sandwiches and wraps. Of course, we couldn't pass up dessert. The list of baked goods — made in house each morning — was so long, it took us a good six minutes to choose. We settled on a light and flaky elephant ear and a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. Delish!
After lunch, head north to visit a few of the specialty Jewish shops along Kingston Avenue. Sparkles Gift and Party shop is like a small, upscale Party City, with gorgeous embroidered table cloths, glassware, and candles. Judaica World, a block from Eastern Parkway, is one of the best sources for Jewish literature in New York City. At Benz's Gourmet market on Albany Avenue, they have traditional Jewish snacks like babka and latke crisps as well as any type of smoked fish you could want. At the corner of Eastern Parkway is the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Often times during the week, there will be wedding ceremonies outside the synagogue, as Hasidic weddings must take place under the open sky. If you happen to catch one, take the opportunity to respectfully glimpse into another culture. Note: If you're planning to visit these shops, don't do it Friday afternoon or Saturday – all close for the Sabbath.
For an afternoon pick-me-up head back south to Franklin Avenue for a cup of Joe. In the tiny Pulp and Bean, everything from the coffee to the pastries to the cups comes from Brooklyn businesses. Owner Tony Fisher grew up in the neighborhood and hand-selected the house blend from Gilles in Park Slope. Breuklen, down the street, is a bit larger, with comfy chairs in the back, and offers all organic food and Stumptown coffee from Seattle. The art on the walls, often by local artists, changes regularly and they have free WiFi. Stroll down the street with your beverage and check out the interesting retail options, including Nairobi's Knapsack, a boutique children's shop, and About Time, Crown Heights' own streetwear company.
When you get hungry again, check out Crow Hill Bistro on Nostrand Avenue and Union Street, named after the neighborhood's pre-1900 moniker. Owned by Crown Heights residents, the restaurant's food speaks to the neighborhood's rich and diverse history. The Caribbean shrimp is light, fruity, and fresh, and the fried chicken is breaded and fried to order. The portions are huge, but save room for dessert – cakes are made fresh daily courtesy of The Sweet Spot.
Or, if you're in the mood to grab a burger, check out Dutch Boy Burgers on Franklin Avenue and St. John's Place which is an addition to the popular bar and beer garden Franklin Park, so stick around and and enjoy a huge selection of drafts and bottled beer outside in the fresh air. Down the street is The Crown Inn, owned by some of the same folks, and pop into Candy Rush for a nostalgic sugar fix. If you're in the mood for pizza, Barboncino Pizza and Bar has a tasty dinner and brunch menu.
If you're in the mood to dance, head to the Brooklyn Museum for first Saturday parties which are always guaranteed to bring out the communal party spirit. To start having fun in Crown Heights, hop on the 2,3,4, or 5 trains!
(Botanic Garden Photo by Lab2112 via Flickr)
(Eastern Parkway Photo by Bitchcakesny via Flickr)
This post was updated Spring 2012.